The Haiti Initiative - Mission Report from Beth Lownik - August 2003

Reflections from Haiti

"How can a blind man describe the scene in front of him?"

On my most recent trip to Haiti, a close friend posed this difficult hypothetical question. We had been to Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying that afternoon, and, as a Haitian who had never before been to such an institution, he was understandably deeply affected. Sitting on the balcony of the rectory in Latiboliere, I held his hand and cried as he poured his heart out about his fears for his own future and the future of his country. "We can't even explain to ourselves what is wrong," he said. "We have been blinded by our situation."

After my fourth experience in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, I'm afraid that I can't agree with my friend's statements. Yes, of course it is difficult for someone who can't see to describe the view. But it isn't the Haitians who have their eyes closed. In fact, their situation enables them to see far more than many Americans ever will, and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to be a small part of such vision. To the best of my ability, I'd like to share the little that I can convey in words.

In a country where the average person eats only 1,100 calories per day, food is indeed a precious gift. It is treated accordingly, and I am continually touched by the effort and care that goes into each meal. I have never sat down to eat in Haiti before praying together with the group. Nor have I ever rushed through a memorized grace there; each prayer is a different and genuine thanks to God for his grace, presence, and love. One specific prayer, given by a fifteen year old nephew of Fr. Tony who has become very close to me, will always stand out in my mind. He bowed his head and launched reverently into a detailed prayer in which he thanked God for everything from a good night's sleep to the good company to the beautiful scenery to the gift of food. This same boy told me that the only thing he really wanted if I insisted on getting him a gift was a calculator, because he loves math class. If someone who has so little can spend so much time thanking the Lord for what he has, what do my actions say while I am at home? I am so lucky, yet I am so ungrateful.

Health care, another human necessity taken for granted here in the United States, is next to nonexistent for the average Haitian. Though I know that this is reality, and I know all of the dire statistics (that over one million Haitians will starve to death in the next five years unless action is taken), I was still taken aback when death hit so close to home. Eddy, the music director at our sister parish and a good friend, was an unrecognizable man this last trip because his eldest son had just recently died. A man who used to sing with us in the back of the pickup truck now walks around as if in a daze, yet the phrase "grasa Dye" or "thanks to God" still comes up in every other sentence he utters. Again, I am struck by my own ungratefulness. Life itself is such a precious gift!

In another instance, I was able to celebrate this gift. A high priority for myself and for the other members of last year's medical mission was checking up on a pair of twins who had been dangerously close to death as newborns the last time we were there. We had given the mother many supplies, and Rosalie, a nurse on the last mission, had personally spent many hours with the babies teaching the mother to exercise and feed them properly. Despite this, everyone was worried about their health, and it was a great relief to see them alive and well on my second day in Latiboliere. The proud mother had come by as soon as she could to show off her healthy son and daughter, as well as to give me something to take back to Rosalie to show her gratitude. She kept repeating her thanks over and over again, saying how much she owed to Rosalie and how much the people in Latiboliere owed to us.

Mother Teresa made an astute observation about human nature that is lived out daily in Haiti. "The more you save, the less you will be able to give. The less you have, the more you will know how to share." We spent one of our days in Port-au-Prince driving over miserable roads for over four hours to visit the small village of Jeannette, where a person with us had been many times. At each house we visited we were welcomed with ecstatic hugs and greetings, fervently offered a chair and a cup of coffee, and treated as if we were royalty. At one house we were given a meal equivalent to a feast, prepared by several women in the community together. I couldn't help but be moved by such generosity, especially coming from people whose hair was streaked with red from vitamin deficiency and whose best clothes consisted of rags and no shoes. I also couldn't help but think of the Gospel's message to recognize the Lord in every individual one encounters. Surely, this sort of welcome would be offered to Jesus by every one of us; that is, if we were told it was Him. When did we lose the knowledge that He lives within each of us? Jesus told us: "I assure you, as often as you did it for the least of my brothers, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40). Where is that message in our daily lives?

Another instance of Haitian generosity and the message of the Gospel is personified in another of Fr. Tony's nephews who I have also become very close to. We were able to take him and two of his cousins with us from Latiboliere to Port-au-Prince, which was indeed a special treat for them as it was the first plane ride for each and even the first time out of Jeremie for one. In a city where poor children walk up to cars begging and people lie half-dead in the streets, we as Americans are warned not to give handouts for danger of being mobbed. Yet here, in the midst of extreme poverty, my friend stopped to give a little something to each person he saw who needed it. True, it was only five or ten gourdes each time (equivalent to one or two cents in our currency), but it was all he had. And it was more than we gave. I even watched as he gave a favorite necklace to a little girl and an extra t-shirt to a struggling man. This time the Gospel literally spoke to me through him, for when I commented to him on his extreme generosity, he quoted Luke 6:38: "Give, and it will be given to you." This Haitian, who has lived through the death of his mother and the abandonment of his father, has taught me more about how to give than anyone else I have ever met.

Yes, though I hate to disagree, I must say that it is we Americans who are blind to the situation in front us. One in three children in the world go to bed hungry every night, and one child under five starves to death every six seconds. We say that we're helping, and that we're pouring our funds out of the country into aid of the poor, but in actuality only .03% of the Gross National Product of developing nations goes toward third world countries, and only 10% of that gets spend on primary human needs. That is less money than Nike makes in one year. Globalization is widening the gap between luxury and misery, and countries like Haiti are being lost in the process. It's a scary thought for the billions of people in the world who have nothing.

Yet, hope lives through relationships like the one with Latiboliere. As long as the poor have an identity, their spirit and faith will endure. The people of Haiti have rescued me from a life of blindly following the material path to spiritual prison. I've opened my eyes to the presence of Jesus in every person. I can see the value in each bite of food that I swallow, and I can say that I've witnessed the power of the Gospel. I entered into this project three years ago hoping that I could make a small difference in the lives of others. Thus far, the only life that has truly been saved is my own.

The relationship between St. Mary's and Notre Dame du Perpetual Secours continues to grow and provide life and hope to individuals both here and in Haiti. Thank you so much to all of you who support the project. None of these things would ever be possible without you.